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Wednesday, 27 November 2019 11:31

An Insight Into... Software Development at Externiture

An Interview with Daniel Kirby, Lead Developer at Externiture

Daniel Kirby - lead software developer at ExternitureADAM: Daniel... What's your role at Externiture?
DANIEL: I'm the lead software developer here at Externiture where we create various bus stop related software, with the main one being Crosstown. My role involves designing and planning the software creation and managing a team of 5 software developers. I also speak with customers to understand their software needs and to provide support.

ADAM: What's Crosstown for?
DANIEL: It's an incredibly complex bit of software to be honest. It allows Bus Operators and Councils who create bus timetables to connect to (or import) their route data and create high-end, print-ready timetables. It's conceptually simple but, when you're dealing with thousands and thousands of bus stops, often with multiple timetable cases and all the intricacies of how each stop has different information and overlapping routes, it becomes a vast array of combinations and possibilities. As well as that, many clients do things 'slightly differently' from one another and there is also a considerable challenge with the data.

ADAM: And what other software are you working on?
DANIEL: We also have an internal piece of software called 'Work Manager' which is used to manage, plan and schedule the work we do at bus stops and other location based projects – such as civil engineering. Whether that's changing the timetable, changing a flag or installing a shelter, the job is created in the system and the engineers on the road then complete the job using an app on their phone.

ADAM: Sounds good... what were the team using before hand? How has Work Manager helped?
DANIEL: Before most of the work was done on spreadsheets and pieces of paper, which can be a nightmare. Work Manager is great for jobs that involve doing the same thing at hundreds bus stops, or any geographical location, as we can see exactly where they are and plan the work route accordingly. It reduces the time the engineer needs to spend at a location and once they are finished all the information and pictures are immediately sent to the website for the admin to review.

ADAM: And what's a typical day for you Dan? How does Externiture approach software development?
DANIEL: When it comes to developing new software or a new feature I first have to plan out the requirements of what is needed, this can be done with internal meetings or by meeting with customers. Once that's all done I create mock-up designs of how it will look and describe what the user experience is intended to be. This gets reviewed and edited in line with the customer's thoughts and insights. When it's all ready, I create work items that tell the the developers what to do. We use the Agile development process, so we work in 2 week sprints where I allocate a set amount of work that needs to be completed. We also have daily “standup” meetings each morning and calls to discuss development to ensure it is delivered on time

ADAM: Is the development team here in the UK or abroad?
DANIEL: We have myself and one other developer here in our Thatcham office in the UK. The rest are outsourced to India.

ADAM: So, do the team in India “get” the whole bus-timetable requirement – I suspect buses are the same the world over?
DANIEL: To begin with we had to explain a lot to them and as we've developed the software they've come to understand it all. Buses are surprisingly complicated and can vary greatly within UK, let alone another country. We've been working with the same team in India for 5years now so they have a great appreciation for all the nuances and quirks involved.

ADAM: It's a strange thing in a way – A bus shelter manufacturer also developing software?
DANIEL: It came about because we were doing the Print for Bus Operators and councils – printing up their timetables. It became apparent that, not only did some of the designs lack consistency from one operator to another - but that the manual process also meant there was more room for human error. As well as that, bigger companies like Stagecoach want to maintain brand consistence to a high level whilst enabling flexibility. We already have a small development team internally to develop the Work Manager and route planning for our team so it made sense to step up and use all that understanding and put it into timetable creation. The timetables look stunning and, once set up, when clients want to change the journey details, it is incredibly rapid for them – so timetable changes can be made, executed, printed and put out a lot quicker with Crosstown. It also does Matrix timetables now too.

ADAM: Matrix timetables? What do you mean by that?
DANIEL: So, Crosstown can produce two types of timetables - “Roadside” and “Matrix”. Roadside timetables are the ones you find at the bus stop and they typically just show the times for that individual stop. A matrix timetable is far more complex and will show the times for multiple stops - and are usually in the form of a leaflet. Crosstown can produce matrix timetables in a standard sheet format and a ready-to-print leaflet format.

ADAM: Sounds great. What's next for Crosstown?
DANIEL: Technically, we're upgrading the whole system to the latest technologies and frameworks. Matt (Externiture's MD) is, rightly, keen to keep it the whole application using the latest, fastest technologies possible. Crosstown is processing huge quantities of data and rendering print-ready artwork 'on-the-fly', so it can't lag behind. We're going to be launching a radical UX re-design in the new year and, conceptally, we're working with clients to make it as easy as possible to rapidly execute updates. We currently believe that (once set up), Crosstown is already about 8 times faster than doing timetables using existing techniques (e.g. using Illustrator or Excel). We have a dev roadmap which is working on getting the initial set up and data management faster. After that, we have a series of ideas to over-haul the timetable workflow and we think we can hit "20x" by the end of next year. The more customers who come on board and provide feedback, the better it will be. We have a rapid, agile development cycle and can implement customer requests at speed. We want Crosstown to be a "no brainer" when it comes to customers switching from their existing workflows.

ADAM: Anything else?
DANIEL: We have Work Manager. Which is constantly being improved. We did a project where there was no 4g signal so it's just had the database restructured to work Offline. And we have a set of ideas in place to link it to Process Manuals and create APIs into our Mapping software and Asset Management Software. Basically, the end goal is to have seemless data flow so we can know what assets are at a site, what needs to be done, geo-locate rapidly, schedule and route the engineers and keep track of project progress all in one effortless ecosystem. It's an ideal. And we're on our way because we've got a technically savvy management team AND a bus-stop savvy dev team. Not many people can compete with that !